Mid-way through the first fight scene of The Wolverine, I thought this film may actually have everything I love to watch in cinema.
Not just in comic book superhero films, but actually all cinema. Directed by James Mangold and written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, this solo offshoot of the X-Men movie franchise is not what we have come to expect from a comic book superhero film.
The X-Men character Wolverine was by far my most favorite comic book superhero as a kid. So in anticipation of being painfully disappointed I avoided the trailers and the sea of articles online. I found myself not comparing this to the previous six X-Men movies, or Avengers for that matter, but to one of the Jason Bourne films. Yes, I’ve said it. This is more of a comic book meets action film meets detective mystery, than a conventional superhero film.
Now it’s not perfect, and the hardcore fans (those who read the source material) may leave the theatre debating with themselves over what creative liberty was taken. Nonetheless, for someone whose attention to the diversity-details borders on OCD, this mash-up of genres works.
I compiled a list of the 18 reasons this is the (almost) perfect comic book movie for those who love ninjas, Japanese cinema and Wolverine.
- Samurai swords: The film begins with Wolverine having gone off the grid, only to be lured back into the world by a girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who claims she has been sent by someone to deliver an ancient samurai sword, initiating the mystery that unravels as the plot progresses.
- Kick-ass Asian female side-kick: That would be Yukio. Good with a blade like The Bride in Kill Bill, without the school-girl outfit thing.
- Comic book noire: Filled with scenes and vignettes reminiscent of Kurosawa’s film noir. If you like ninja and samurai films, you probably appreciate Kurosawa. There is a brilliant Kurosawa-inspired scene of an army of ninjas overwhelming Logan.
- International film feel: In taking place in Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast, lots of Japanese (even English subtitles) and beautifully shot in both urban cityscape and rural Japan, this has the elements of both a comic book movie and a Japanese film at your favorite international film festival. Considering that most comic book films have predominantly white (and generally American) casts, this was was like a cinematic mixed-race marriage.
- Grittier, more Kill Bill version of Wolverine: Remember, Wolverine has blades coming out of his hands. Although rated PG-13, this is a violent film and there’s no candying what Wolverine does. Almost to the point of being psychotic (which is truer for all comic book characters). That said, this could have easily been a very bloody film from the numbers of people Wolverine takes down, but the PG-13 rating results in essentially bloodless victims.
- Deeply flawed hero, that struggles with being less than super: A lot of superhero films do this, but it doesn’t always work. Building upon Wolverine’s inconsolable loss of former lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan’s struggle with PTSD-like mental health issues and loss of his self-healing power, reminds viewers of his humanity. Although, I have to agree with Megan Lehmann’s assessment that the regular haunting by Jean in his dreams, lustfully “clad in a diaphanous negligee” is “unfortunately cheesy”.
- Modern-day yakuzas: Some of the fastest-paced fight-scenes ever, with a never-ending supply of yakusa.
- Japanese twist on the fight a-top the speeding train: In this case, a breathtaking fight on top of a 300 MPH bullet train.
- Super-cool super-archer sniper: As Wolverine engages the yakusa, Harada, (Will Yun Lee), demonstrates his sniper-like accuracy, and Jason Bourne-like ability to run and jump from rooftop to rooftop. Never mind that this character is dramatically altered from the comic book, Harada as the apparent leader of the Black Clan of ninjas with superhero archer-ninja ability is COOL!
- Asian male characters who have lines in English: I know. The fact that this is even something is depressing. But it has to be said. When’s that last time you watched a film with so many Asian-looking men with speaking roles? In English, not Engrish? In fact, even the alternate love interest to Logan in played by 1.5-Gen Korean-born American actor, Will Yun Lee.
- Less cartoony, less CG and more fluidly-choreographed fight-scenes: Ninjas, yakuza, samurai swords, and a kick-ass Asian female side-kick (whose primary weapon is a sword) means there has to be great fight scenes and dazzling swordplay for this film to work.
- Ninjas, and tons of them: As the trailers promised, there’s a lot of ninjas. Possibly more than Ninja Assassin.
- Gender role counter-narrative: Although the plot mostly revolves around Logan’s protection of Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter to a mega-rich industrialist who doesn’t want to die, she’s no shy or weak wallflower. There’s plenty of scenes of her ability to fight and by the end of the movie Mariko becomes her grandfather’s successor as the head of the largest corporation in Asia. Does this matter? Did a Black president in the TV-series 24 matter?
- Subtle commentary on the American bombing of Japan: Some vivid scenes depicting the aftermath of the bombing on Japan during WWII.
- Battle-mech: Silver Samurai in the movie is essentially a samurai-themed battle-mech.
- Really great source material that called for a “Japanese” flavor: Inspired by the popular comic-book mini-series from 1982 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller that was set in Japan.
- Canadiana: The film begins with a shout out to the Canadian outdoors, Canadian Grizzly bears and Canadian beer.
- A crazy post-credits teaser to X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I know Angry Asian Man said he’s a “little tired of watching the white movie hero“. Me too. And maybe there’s a bit too much of The Last Samurai going on here. But the first thing I heard at the movie’s end was, “Was that Asian enough for you?” The only thing missing was anime. Also missing: yellow-face, black-face, red-face. This has creepily become acceptable racist Hollywood convention, and it’s such a relief to not have to deal with that.
The Wolverine premiered in Canada on July 25 and in the U.S. on July 26th, 2013. I watched the premier in Vancouver with my fanboy brother who isn’t sure he liked it yet. READ his 18 Reasons for hating it.